Ice crystals on tintype: making nature a part of my photographic process aka a song of ice then fire

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I am a native New Yorker who has been photographing the streets city streets and musicians for over two decades, from up and coming bands to big names like Alice in Chains, Lenny Kravitz and Ice-T, I’ll shoot in hotels, on rooftops, even the occasional bathroom or subway.

About six years ago I turned my attention to tintype (wet plate collodion), and have been documenting the city with my camera and what’s probably best described as an apothecary cabinet on wheels (or out of the back of my pop-up tintype truck).

I was recently outside shooting tintype for a client and thanks to some friendly wind chill, I affected a leaf-like pattern on one of my plates. 100% organically, no Photoshop involved:

The tintype process is a handcrafted photographic process. When using the tintype wet plate process, each plate is prepared (coated), shot and developed one at a time. The final steps in the process are to wash, dry and then ultimately varnish each plate (this protects the delicate silver image and also keeps it from tarnishing over time).

After washing a plate, it’s normally moved to a drying rack where it can either air dry or is dried over a flame – the flame approach works well when the environment is cold and you don’t have the time to let nature do its thing.

On this shoot at my NYC pop-up studio the temperature was about 35 degrees F but with the wind chill at times it was apparently below freezing. I say apparently but it most definitely was. The water on the surface of this plate froze before I could get it over the flame, forming the most beautiful patterns on the surface.

Out of fear that the frost would damage the fragile collodion, I quickly got the plate back in the water to defrost it before drying it immediately. It turns out the plate survived with just a faint pattern in the Collodion.

It a magical process. crazy stuff happens. There is always something new to learn and on this day at least, it was how shooting it outside in freezing conditions would affect the result I have certainly have never seen the surface of the collodion effected like this in the past. Perhaps I’ll never see it again.

Following a quick Google trying to find out what was causing these pretty, leaf-like patterns, it seems that they are a result of very tiny imperfections on the surface of the collodion (the equivalent of the modern-day emulsion). Considering this is a hand made process there are loads of opportunities for tiny imperfections in the surface. These variations in the surface affect the way that the ice crystals form and branch out.

One commenter on my Facebook post noted,

“This is gorgeous. I’m a materials scientist so here’s my bit of info: crystal size relates to cooling speed/ultimate temp. Slow freezing gives large crystals. Too fast and there will be many more small ones that won’t be as visible and they won’t have time to form ordered patterns like yours. There’s going to be a sweet spot in how quickly it freezes for getting good effects.”

Was it a one-off? I’m not sure I’ll be able to recreate it in quite the same way, even if I tried.

That’s the beauty of the process.

~ Justin

Editor’s note

Justin’s a little too modest to say so himself, so I will: if you are in NYC and want to grab one of Justin’s unique tintypes, you can pre-book a session with him over on his website. He runs the pop-up studio on his personal time and doesn’t keep a regular schedule, so this way, he can (almost) come to you!

A huge thanks to Solarcan’s Sam Cornwell for making the introduction between Justin and I.

~ EM

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